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From Tracking Fires to Fixing Potholes, a Roundup of Open Data Projects in Russia

BY Becky Kazansky | Friday, July 8 2011

After our post on the open data contest Apps4Russia late last month, we received an email from Gov 2.0 proponent Alena Popova, the chief executive officer of Gov2Project.ru, an incubator that invests in and consults with e-Gov and Gov 2.0 project developers in Russia. Popova wants to break the myth that “Russia has no e-Government at all,” citing a multitude of projects currently in development — some using government provided data, others using citizen-led crowd-sourcing — that, taken together, appear to show a fledgling community around open data initiatives.

One project Popova highlights as a good example is the Russian-fires project — a mutual aid coordination tool built on the Ushahidi platform — that was used during the uncontrolled wildfires around Moscow last August to provide information not forthcoming from official channels. The fires' spread, arguably made worse by former president Vladimir Putin's elimination of a national, centralized forest fire service in 2006, blanketed the city in heavy smog for nearly a month, making the air in and around the city unbreathable, grinding flights to and from its two international airports to a halt, and contributing to a record number of deaths amidst an unprecedented Russian heat wave. The interactive, crowd-sourced “Help Map” allowed users to submit fires, ask for help, offer help, and find assistance coordinators.

Another project she notes, Rospil, lets users see records of public procurements by government officials and “report a dubious purchase.” One entry titled “Delivery of Cars for the Needs of Interior of the Chechen Republic” lists an order filed April 21 for 113 million rubles. A description states that “among other things, the Chechen police needed 15 cars such as Mercedes-Benz E350 4-matic and a Porsche Cayenne Turbo Tiptronic S.” The submission received a healthy 43 comments.

Shtrafy-gibdd, or “Traffic Police Fines," lets users check information on their traffic fines — an interesting development considering that many fines are paid off-the-record.

A service called Nashe Veshe, or, “Our Things," works off of a Russian law that says every officer must within 30 days give a written answer to any question submitted by a citizen. The site automates the process of sending messages to Russian officials.

Another crowdsourced mapping project, called Street Journal, lets Russian citizens report and corroborate hyper-local problems via map interface. Popova calls it a “successful Russian analogue of SeeClickFix." The site claims that of 4586 submitted complaints, 975 of them have been resolved.

Popova says that Russian open-data advocates are slowly building up a real bottom-up infrastructure for their projects.

“Some of them require lobbying at the government level and it is necessary to create the system and strategic communications for such projects," she wrote to me in an email, later adding, "We want to create an environment, framework, working rules.”

Others say there’s a lot of hard work to go. In further conversation via Gchat and email recently, Apps4Russia's Ivan Begtin told me that when it comes to open data, Russia is “one of the most transparent countries," with “huge amounts of data available,” but he calls it an “unqualified transparency."

In other words, the government's lack of intentioned approach has lead to what Begtin says are "unprepared actions without methodology." The government data that is available is of widely varying quality and limited usability.

Begtin says that when he talks to officials, he tells them that open data is a way to help promote government activities and programs, but he underlined that “we don't have high level support of such activities.”

Perhaps more importantly, the open data and gov 2.0 movements have to grow grassroots support to gather steam — Begtin underlines that open data is a new subject for Russians at large. In a society where a more fundamental sense of security has often been elusive, people have to see how transparency benefits them — which is why Begtin says that in Russia, “it takes a long time to promote openness.”

Projects like Russia-fires can certainly make a strong case for open data among the wider population. A poll conducted by the newspaper Vedomosti during the fires showed 68% of people saying they trust online media such as blogs, 28% trusting independent media, and 4% trusting government media. In the midst of what President Vladimir Medvedev declared to be a state of emergency, a grassroots effort stepped in to provide useful information. Russia-fires helped to "make crowdsourcing in Russia more relevant," Popova says.

For a longer list of interesting projects in Russia, you can visit Popova's blog or Gov2Project.ru.

We're interested to know about other projects worth noting — both grassroots and government-led. Please send us your tips and submissions.